Feb 27, 2013

OHC: Birding by Ear: a Whole New World

We took a much-needed break today after the dreariest, grayest, rainiest day I can remember in a long while. I knew the window of opportunity was short--cold returning this weekend--so I suggested that after the quick tune-up at the orthodontist (braces went on two days ago), we could grab the dog and the GPS and head for the little park near the doctor's office for some fresh air, exercise, and geo-caching.
Font Hill Park, a wetland conservation area

    No decent homeschooling parent misses a chance to turn any event into a teachable moment, even a walk. A Charlotte Mason-style educator would be kicked out of the club if she didn't! So knowing that one of our Outdoor Hour Challenges for February was birding by ear, I realized that I had a perfect God-given opportunity to attempt the challenge and gain some nature study points.

 (NOTE: I credit an old friend and birding expert in Pennsylvania, Skip Conant, for teaching the importance of birding by ear. He said it was more important than identifying by sight because so often you CAN'T see them. And I can recommend the Android app, iBird, for the added dimension of audio clips of every bird, something no book can give you. )

  The park is one we have visited before, but not for a while. It is a wetland park with a boardwalk and asphalt path meandering around the perimeter of a pond and along the stream that it feeds through the woods. It is blessed with several types of environments perfect for attracting a variety of birds in a relatively small area.
   Besides looking for the geocache, I further sweetened the deal by offering a reward--"Will work for Chocolate"-- for identifying at least six species of birds by ear.

     It didn't take long.
Canada Geese annoyed by our intrusion
   A pair of Canada Geese voiced their annoyance at our arrival immediately. Then a Song Sparrow welcomed spring. A love-sick Northern Cardinal wooed its mate in the trees to the left. A bereaved Mourning Dove sighed.

   Four down and our walk had only begun.
   Into the wooded stream area, and new species who prefer a secluded habitat welcomed us. A Blue Jay screeched, Chickadees dee-deed, and Tufted Titmice called for Peter-Peter-Peter! A Carolina Wren wanted his Tea-Kettle, Tea-Kettle, Tea! A Red-winged Blackbird preferred jer-KEEEY!
  A Flicker teased us with a few Keew's, but never showed. And a White-breasted Nuthatch 'nyacked' about us to his neighbors.
The stick horse gets a needed drink.
   Then, without a sound, a huge flap of wings grabbed our attention as a disturbed Red-shouldered Hawk rose up out of the swamp where it was planning its next meal not thirty feet from us and soared up to a gigantic tulip poplar to await our departure.
   We didn't find the cache, but I was personally rewarded by the twelve species that Mei had identified by ear alone!
   Here is her notebook page in which she listed her birds and then made notes of their songs to refer back to. We had fun interpreting the musical sounds phonetically and that will help them stick in her head in the future.

 Gotten an earful from the birds? How would YOU interpret a Red-winged Blackbird?  Tell Mother All About It!

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OHC: The Great Backyard Bird Count

   For all the years I've been a birder (my whole life) and all the years I've homeschooled , I've never had us participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count! But thanks to the Outdoor Hour Challenge, we finally got the nudge.
  We got all those feeders up and filled, (see my post about our backyard bird paradise here!), then created our account, got out our binoculars, and made up a chart for counting. (which I can't find right now).
   Our wonderful three-sided sunroom provided optimal conditions for keeping track. On the website it seemed confusing, but by actually participating, we soon got into the swing. Mei had to learn to be very still and PATIENT for the birds to arrive. But after about five minutes they started returning to the feeders that our presence had startled them from. The bold little chickadees led the way. Then it was the juncos who resumed their pecking.
   "Hey! What's that?" "A sparrow." "But what KIND of sparrow?" (white-throated) "Did we count that bird?" and so on. We had recently attracted a Red-breasted Nuthatch. I so hoped we could include it in our first submission. But it was a no-show.
Mei attempting a most challenging feat: photographing birds.
   We thought that the counting would be the best part, but found that entering our data was even more exciting. We found that our submission was timed to approach the 5000th of the day on Friday, the first day of counting,  and watched with fascination as the interactive world-wide map (the first year ever for international tabulation) popped up locations one-by-one around the globe as the counter moved quite quickly to the 5000 mark.
    I continued the challenge three more times over the weekend under varying conditions and settings. Around a wetland near Mei's ballet studio, I heard my first Red-winged Blackbirds of the season. I was glad that birds HEARD were countable as well as birds SEEN. On another occasion, while walking the dog, I encountered some bluebirds. Back home on Sunday near sunset, the Red-breasted Nuthatch  made his appearance (yeah!), followed by a Downy Woodpecker and our newest member of the suet gang, the not-at-all-creepie Brown Creeper. I guess everyone wanted to be part of the game!

    All in all, we observed over twenty species of birds, putting us at the middle mark for species entered in our state. It was a great feeling knowing, as I explained to Mei, that we "citizen scientists" helped accumulate data that can determine species migrations, movements, rises and declines. And it was a lot of FUN too!
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